Afghans go to the polls on August 20 to choose a president and members of 34 provincial councils. But all eyes within and outside the country will be on whether the presidential selection will go to a second round.
Hamid Karzai, who has led the country for eight years under different titles, the last five as elected president, is vying for a second five-year term. The incumbent is a heavy favorite, the question being whether he can win a 50-percent-plus one vote majority. Recent polls suggest that Karzai has the support of 45-46 percent of decided voters.
On the eve of the election, 32 candidates remained from an original pool of 41. Some dropped out of the running, or gave their support to other candidates. Two women are among the candidates.
Among the challengers, Abdullah Abdullah, who is polling at around 25-26 percent and is supported by the Tajik minority, is given the best chance to push the election to a second round, a scenario Karzai is keen on avoiding.
Polls indicate that Ramazan Bashardoat, a former minister of planning and member of the Hazara ethnic minority, will receive about 10 percent of the vote. Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who had a long academic career in the United States, is expected to take about 6 percent.
Both have made enough of an impression to garner single-digit percentages in pre-election polling.
Among the also-rans are a former Taliban commander, a communist general, and candidates from a variety of backgrounds. All candidates are running as independents, but often enjoy the backing of specific political parties, factions, and tribes.
Presidents serve for five-year terms, with a maximum of two terms in office. All candidates must nominate two running mates.
Under the constitution, all candidates must be Afghan citizens, Muslim, born of Afghan parents, and at least 40 years old. No one convicted of any crime is eligible to run. Two presidential candidates were disqualified for failing to meet the criteria.
Afghanistan last held a presidential election in 2004, with polling supervised by the United Nations. Karzai beat 17 contenders to score a first-round victory with 55.4 percent of the vote. Yunus Qanuni was a distant second with 16.3 percent.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission is overseeing this year's election, with international donors footing the $220 million bill. Approximately 17 million voters -- an increase of about 4.4 million since 2008 -- are registered out of population of 33 million. Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran will not participate in the vote.
If no candidate receives a 50 percent-plus-one-vote majority, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held within two weeks of the announcement of the official results on September, placing it in early October.
Provincial Council Elections
Provincial councils, or shura, are advisory bodies intended to facilitate the realization of state development initiatives and to provide provincial administrations with advice.
The first, and most recent, provincial council election was held in 2005. Council members serve four-year terms.
A total of 3,396 candidates, including 324 women, are contesting 420 seats in 34 provinces.
Two seats are guaranteed for women on each council, although more can be elected if voted in.
The number of seats allocated to each province is dependent on population. Provinces with fewer than 500,000 people, for example, have nine council seats. A province with more than 3 million people is allotted 29 council seats.
How We Got Here
Afghanistan's presidential election was originally scheduled for April, but were postponed for a number of stated reasons; namely the lack of security, leading to fears about the ability to hold even nominally free elections in remote areas.
The insurgency has intensified since the 2004 poll, with 2009 seeing the highest casualties since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
After Karzai backed the election commission's call for the presidential election to be postponed until security could be established, his political opponents challenged the constitutionality of the move. However, a Supreme Court ruling backed the call, and the presidential poll was scheduled to be held on August 20, concurrently with the scheduled regional council elections.
Karzai's term, which was officially supposed to end on May 21, was extended as a result.
The election commission originally planned to have 7,000 polling centers throughout the country, but some 500 will not be opened due to security fears.
Polling will begin at 7 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. Upon presenting their registration cards, each voter will have one finger marked with indelible ink to prevent multiple voting.
Each voter will receive two ballots, one for the presidential race, and another for the election of provincial council members.
Ballots will be counted by hand at each polling station as soon as voting ends. The process is expected to last until September 2. Complaints will be handled by the Electoral Complaints Commission.
Preliminary results are to be issued September 3, and final results to be declared on September 17.
With security being the main reason for postponing elections, much focus has been on the success of a surge of U.S. forces, which head the allied military effort in Afghanistan.
A total of 300,000 military, police, and security personnel will provide security on polling day, including 60,000 ISAF troops, 40,000 U.S troops, and Afghan troops.
International troops will establish an outer security ring, while 82,000 Afghan army and 76,000 Afghan police will handle towns and villages and guard polling centers. In some regions armed tribal volunteers will also provide local security.
Allied and Afghan forces have concentrated on the capital Kabul and on the eastern and southern Pashtun regions where the Taliban insurgency is most active.
The United States and NATO have given assurances that security will be adequate for the elections due to the additional deployments.
The Taliban, claiming the result has been pre-determined by Washington, has threatened that polling day will be fraught with danger, and has advised Afghans not to participate.
Karzai has hailed the security situation, but his administration this week also ordered media not to air coverage of violence on election day, provoking a strong reaction from the media and human rights activists.
Allegations of potential fraud marked the run-up to the election.
Some candidates have complained about people holding multiple registration cards, and the media has reported cases of people buying and selling cards.
On election day, some 450 international observers and 4,500 Afghan observers will monitor the process. The election commission expects to deploy about 250,000 people at polling stations.